Vote for Democrats—Then Organize to Kick Their Butts

Of course it is lousy situation. These days voting for Democrats, however, helps build a bulwark against elitist reactionary rage at restrictions on their greed, and right-wing populist fears among white people over demographic changes in our population. Since the 1930s Organized Wealth has been trying to shred the meager social safety net woven during the Roosevelt Administration. These self-delusional greedsters have been working with right-wing ideologues to exacerbate fears of changes in “traditional” hierarchies of race and gender to genuine economic anxiety. The result is that today we face a Republican Party electoral campaign effort built on prejudice, scapegoating, and conspiracy theories. These vicious tools of fear have already given permission for aggression and violence against the named enemies of the “Real Americans.” This trend will outlast the election. It must be met with resistance.

I understand the appeal of third parties, but the US is not a parliamentary system, and they have little chance of success. As G. William Domhoff notes:

When it comes to electoral systems, the United States is the most extreme of the countries with a single-member district plurality system, meaning that its third parties have been very small and ephemeral. They rarely win more than a percent or two of the vote, and rarely last more than one or two elections when they do receive more than a few percent.

Boycotting the election may make you feel superior, but frankly my dears, no one else gives a damn. Go for the tactic not the antic.

Strategically, we need to rebuild a broad-based and diverse movement for progressive social change. Strong militant social movements move electoral political parties in their direction—it is never the other way around. We need to be bold and take risks to stop the reactionary juggernaut. We know it is much more effective to organize from inside movements rather than pontificating about them from Ivory Towers of privilege. It is time to stop masturbating about real revolution and make real change with multiple partners. The next best thing to sex is the successful climax of an organizing campaign. (Often the two are related).

We need to craft a broad popular alliance while reclaiming the term “progressive” from Democratic Party hacks, former liberals, and neoconservatives. Obama is a centrist, not a progressive. He only appears to be on the Left to so many otherwise sensible people because the country has been shifted so far to the Right. Over a decade ago I wrote that progressives needed to face four fronts. I have updated the text slightly. We must organize against:

• The rise of reactionary populism, nativism, and fascism with roots in white supremacy, xenophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, subversion panics, and the many mutating offspring of conspiracist theories.

• Theocracy and other anti–democratic forms of religious fundamentalism, around the world, which in the US is based in White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism with its subtexts of patriarchy, misogyny, and homophobia.

• Authoritarian state actions in the form of militarism and interventionism abroad and government repression and erosion of civil liberties at home.

• The antidemocratic neocorporatism of multinational capital with its attack on the standard of living of working people around the globe.

Some of the most provocative and useful discussions of this multi-front approach are collected at Three Way Fight, “an insurgent blog on the struggle against the state and fascism.”

Use Effective Methodologies

We need to defend dissent, promote power structure research, publically challenge conspiracist theories, and use new forms of communication.

Defend Dissent

We need to challenge oppression and repression. Political repression is rampant in the United States, and hampers our ability to reach whole sectors of our society. The new slogan of the Defending Dissent Foundation where I am a vice president is “Dissent is Essential!” Progressives should not be cheering when the government represses right-wing movements, groups, and individuals. Why would we encourage the abuse of state power when we or our friends will inevitably be the next targets of repression? Take the chant “No free speech for fascists” and rework it as “No free speech for environmental activists.” Green is the new Red. Every progressive activist, no matter what our key issue of concern, should help restore the civil liberties we have lost since the terror attacks on September 11, 2001. To do this we should not fear temporary tactical alliances with conservatives and libertarians in defense of civil liberties, before all of us dissidents across the political spectrum get to chat about it together in the camps. Just trying to get your attention….

Promote Power Structure Research

C. Wright Mills’ famous study The Power Elite was published in 1956. It was a fortuitous moment, and was picked up by progressive activists along with the work of Karl Marx, John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Paulo Freire. Miles Horton collected the works of these authors and others at the library of the Highlander Center which trained civil rights and labor activists, including Rosa Parks and a young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr.

Student activists participating in the Civil Rights Movement returned to their campuses and began to challenge entrenched autocratic systems of authority. Power structure research became the leading analytical tool within Left movements. From these roots sprang critical race theory, feminist theory, queer theory, ecological theories, and a variety of other analytical forms that grew in the 1970s and 1980s. Central to all of these analytical approaches is the idea that power structures are not composed of a few bad individuals and are not easily transformed with minor legislative tinkering. Instead, what is required are radical changes to the systems, structures, and institutions of power.

Well-known progressive activists who follow these analytical traditions range from democratic socialists Barbara Ehrenreich and Cornel West to left-libertarian egalitarians (anarcho-libertarian socialists), best represented by the work of Noam Chomsky. Today, academics such as G. William Domhoff, Adolph Reed, Jr., Henry Giroux, Abby Scher, and Jean Hardisty—as well as journalist-activists such as Holly Sklar, Roberto Lovato, Laura Flanders, and Amy Goodman—have refined the power structure research model. What all of these perspectives share is an analysis of complex systems of power, rather than a fixation on individuals who may or may not be involved in commonplace minor conspiracies. These sorts of conspiracies may line some bank accounts but almost never dramatically shape major historic social or political processes.

Publically Challenge Conspiracist Theories

Conspiracist theories are toxic to democracy because they are a narrative form of scapegoating. Matthew N. Lyons and I argue that:

Opposing scapegoating is both a moral issue and strategically vital because of the role scapegoating plays in building rightwing populism which can be harvested by fascism. Fascism begins by organizing a mass movement with bitter anti–regime rhetoric. Human rights organizers working for social and economic justice need to encourage forms of mass political participation, including democratic forms of populism, while simultaneously opposing scapegoating and conspiracism that often accompanies right-wing populism.

The removal of the obvious anti–communist underpinnings assisted left wing conspiracists in creating a parody of the fundamentalist/libertarian conspiracist critiques. Left wing conspiracists strip away the underlying religious fundamentalism, antisemitism, and economic social Darwinism, and peddle the repackaged product like carnival snake oil salesmen to unsuspecting sectors of the left. Those on the left who only see the antielitist aspects of right-wing populism and claim they are praiseworthy are playing with fire. Radical-sounding conspiracist critiques of the status quo are the wedge that fascism uses to penetrate and recruit from the left.

While few right-wing populist movements move on to become neofascist movements, fascism itself is the most aggressive form of right-wing populism.

More than a decade after the terror attacks on September 11, 2001 we still see some on the Left embracing 9/11 conspiracy theories woven into critiques of US foreign policy by neofascists and antisemites, including former participants in the LaRouchite network. Examples include material from the Left/Right conspiracist Voltaire Network which end up posted on websites such as Counterpunch and the Centre for Research on Globalisation.

Use New Forms of Communication

We need to learn the new information dissemination methodologies made possible by electronic and online communications systems such as the Internet and cell phones. If you don’t use Facebook and Twitter to organize, you are a dinosaur. At least post to a website or blog, or support one financially. Become familiar with online information sources including Alternet, the Public Eye, Talk to Action, and Z Magazine’s ZCOM. There are many more worthy of support.

Reach Across Boundaries and Build Bridges

Issues of class, race, and gender are “omnipresent in the background of all forms of collective action,” writes Buechler, and they reflect “institutional embeddedness within the social fabric at all levels.” These are distinct yet overlapping structures of power that need to be assessed both independently and jointly, according to Buechler, and to do this it is important “to theorize the different, specific, underlying dynamics that distinguish one structure from another.”

Over the years I have worked at bridge building with organizers such as Jean Hardisty, Suzanne Phar and Loretta Ross. Jean Hardisty is the founder and former director of Political Research Associates where I worked for thirty years. Pharr is former director of the Highlander Center in Tennessee, and author of, In the Time of the Right: Reflections on Liberation; Ross is the former national coordinator of Sistersong, a women of color reproductive health collective in Atlanta, Georgia. Back in the mid-1990s it was clear to a large number of progressive organizers that we were facing a well-funded right-wing backlash against equality and liberation. Pharr asked Ross and me if we would help organize a national strategy meeting to talk about the breakdown in communications among different progressive constituencies. We called ourselves the Blue Mountain Working Group and after several days of intense conversation we issued a statement that included advice:

It is vital that we all share information, advice, criticisms, and assistance as we learn to work together. The anti-democratic right has a multi-issue strategic agenda, but its tactic is to focus its attacks on one high-visibility target constituency at a time. No single segment of our society has demonstrated an ability to resist these attacks alone. We must learn to work together. We urge everyone who desires to defend and extend democracy to join together in forming broad and diverse locally-based coalitions to resist the rollback of rights; to block the backlash; to fight the right.

Especially when bridge building, it is imperative to listen respectfully to the stories and grievances of the people we are mobilizing and recruiting. As Ross puts it, “You can’t organize people you don’t respect. And don’t try to pretend otherwise…people aren’t stupid and they know you are just pretending.” As we speak truth to power, we must learn to use plain language and not be afraid to show emotion which connects us to the real struggles of most people.

We also must challenge the language of liberalism. There is a slogan in anti-racist work: “In Tolerance there is no Respect.” Anti-prejudice programs that avoid dealing with systems of oppression (and our complicity in perpetuating them) tend to shift the solutions to law enforcement by talking about “extremists” and “extremism” or “hate groups.” This fails to address the roots of bigotry in hierarchies of power, and to also undermine civil liberties. The term “extremism” itself was popularized in the mid-1960s as a way to lump the white racist Segregationist Movement and the pro-equality Civil Rights Movement together as troublemakers. Every time a person on the Left uses the term “extremist” to blast right-wing opponents, it further marginalizes out work as progressives who strive for radical change.

And when speaking about language, those of us who only can speak English should consider learning another language spoken in the area in which we live. My spouse and I are learning Spanish. Loro viejo aprende a hablar! (Idiomatic equivalent of the old dog can learn new tricks, except it is a parrot).

Make Movement Building a Priority

Effective social movements need a stable infrastructure to survive and force substantial changes in a society. What does it take to build a strong social movement? With a tip of the intellectual hat to a boatload of sociologists and other social scientists, here is a list of ingredients:

• A discontented group of politicized persons who share the perception that they have common grievances they want society to address

• A powerful and lucid ideological vision linked to strategies and tactics that have some reasonable chance of success I The recruitment of people into the movement through preexisting social, political, and cultural networks

• A core group of trusted strategic leaders and local activists who effectively mobilize, organize, educate, and communicate with the politicized mass base

• The efficient mobilization of resources that are available, or can be developed, to assist the movement to meet its goals

• An institutional infrastructure integrating political coordination, research and policy think tanks, training centers, conferences, and alternative media

• Political opportunities in the larger social and political scene that can be exploited by movement leaders and activists

• The skillful framing of ideas and slogans for multiple audiences such as leaders, members, potential recruits, policymakers, and the general public

• An attractive movement culture that creates a sense of community through mass rituals, celebrations, music, drama, poetry, art, and narrative stories about past victories, current struggles, and future successes

• The ability of recruits to craft a coherent and functional identity as a movement participant

Starting in the 1970s, the Political Right funded a conservative social movement that stood outside the Republican Party. They funded a robust infrastructure that allowed the network of social movement organization to pull the Republican Party to the Right. Since the mid 1970s a small group of us have studied how right-wing organizers and corporate strategists accomplished this. It was never a mystery. They wrote how they planned to do it. Then they did it. A few years ago with much ballyhoo the liberal Democracy Alliance was formed and raised tens of millions of dollars with the claim they had discovered the secret to how the Right-wing juggernaut was built. Radical left movement publications had been explaining it for years.

We knew that the elites of organized wealth and corporations (working with political right ideologues) funded opposition political/electoral work and movement building; both opposition research and strategic research; both national and local organizations; both campaign advertising and small publications and journals where ideas had consequences. The Democracy Alliance spent millions to create inside-the-beltway think tanks and other organizations tied to Democratic Party political campaigns and electoral opposition research. Some of these groups have done useful work…but it is not movement building. Meanwhile scores of progressive organizations have gone under, or refocused their work to chase dwindling foundation dollars for projects that appeal to the latest liberal fad—along the way burning out their own progressive staff in a desperate attempt to survive.

We need to recover the idea of setting “principles of unity” for coalition events, and develop methods for dealing with disruptions in our organizations that humanely reach out to troubled persons yet allow work to go forward. Every group needs to develop their own unique approach to how to handle disruptive persons. In doing so we need to condemn “agent baiting,” in which persons are accused of working for the government without a shred of evidence.

If a coalition event is built around closing an incinerator in a people of color community, then speakers from the podium should respect the principles of unity and not call for an end to the war in Afghanistan, no matter how sincere they are about that belief. Adding a laundry list of demands to an event is not an effective educational practice. It makes potential recruits feel they have no place in a larger movement. Sociologists now know that people join movements because they have a specific grievance. As they get recruited into a social movement, they then learn the larger ideological issues and broader explanations through exposure to frames and narratives.

Sociological narratives are simply stories that serve as teaching tools. They work best when told in the first person. It is better to help train union members on strike (and their spouses) to tell the story of their experiences and the stress put on their family than to have an academic give a lecture on capitalism and surplus value.

Use a Human Rights Framework

Many of us are already using Human Rights as a compelling master frame for uniting progressive movements. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the inherent dignity of all members of the human family. Human Rights are those rights that are universal and inalienable; and which provide the foundations for justice and peace in the world. Human rights include specific social, economic, cultural, civil, and political rights for people of all ages; races; ethnicities; religious, spiritual, or ethical beliefs; gender; sexual orientation; or ability. This type of “Panoply Praxis” prepares us for facing multiple issues and multiple aggressors. Panoply is a term culled from the early Greek for a complete suit of armor.

A progressive human rights perspective sees liberty, freedom, laws, and rights as an essential framework, but envisions justice as the goal. Democracy thrives where human rights are defended and justice is honored as a collective goal of society. No justice, no peace. Ultimately, the successful assertion of “collective human rights” or “group rights” depends on the “linking of ethnicity/race, class, gender, and sexuality,” argues Felice, because this linkage “mutes supremacist tendencies by denying the right of any one group to assert supremacy over a different group”.

See Yourself as a Link on a Chain

Organizing for human rights is like canoeing upstream…if we stop paddling we go backwards. We must embrace humility and learn from our mistakes; criticize constructively, and be willing to step aside and trust the next generation of activists.

For example, Marina Sitrin, an experienced progressive activist and scholar, thinks too many in the traditional organized Left have misconceptions about the Occupy Movement. Sitrin was drawn to the Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York City from its earliest days. She recognizes that the way Occupy functions is confusing or frustrating to some on the Left.

“There are people who think Occupy is wrong because we don’t share the same strategy as they do.” According to Sitrin she has seen this, among people from the Old Left who are “really convinced that building strong left political parties,” is essential for organizing. “They have very strong positions on this question and they have lived for a very long time championing those positions. Then they run into a movement that does not want to build a party, confront agencies of the state, or take over the government, and they don’t know what to make of us.”

“Some people think that since Occupy doesn’t issue demands and does not engage the state directly that we have not been effective, says Sitrin. “Our point of reference is each other. We organize not by letter writing or voting or asking the state for concession—we occupy, and that has been effective.” Sitrin argues “it is not a contradiction for this to be true” and has documented her claim:

Throughout the United States, in large cities and small towns, people inspired by the politics and tactics of Occupy have been organizing to defend people from evictions, from the neighborhood of Bernal Heights in San Francisco to suburbs in midwestern Minnesota and Iowa. The form is the same. Neighbors come together, sometimes going door to door, sometimes meeting in a person’s home, and discuss who is at risk of foreclosure and what to do about it, often physically defending homes from eviction as well as petitioning for new terms for living in the home with the bank. Anyone who has been to one of these home defenses, or even looked at the photos, will quickly get a sense of what this means: teenagers in sports jackets, mothers holding children, grandparents and neighbors and activists, all together gather to prevent an eviction or foreclosure from taking place. In most cases they win, forcing the banks to allow people to keep their homes instead of being cast out on the street.

As a scholar, Sitrin has studied and written about different concepts of power in liberatory social and political movements and the use of autonomism and horizontalism as organizing frameworks for creating change. She points out that autonomous social movements in Argentina are part of a global phenomenon of horizontalism that emerged before the Occupy movement, and similar structures were later established in Greece.

In the United States, “Occupy as a movement or network is not campaigning for any candidate in the 2012 election because we do not believe that elections are how we choose to change the world,” says Sitrin, “Most occupy participants will vote anyway – but this is not a contradiction either, and does not mean that there is a confidence in the electoral system as a site of change – more likely people are seeing it as merely a defensive move.”

Defend the Promise of Democracy

As we promote progressive solutions, we must also join with all persons across the political spectrum to defend the basic ideas of mass democracy, even as we argue that it is an idea that has never been real for many here in our country. The principles of the Enlightenment are not our goal, but resisting attempts to push political discourse back to pre–enlightenment principles is nonetheless a worthy effort.

We have to have faith in democracy as a potential, and reject liberal and conservative claims that democracy is a set of specific institutions created by white male northern Europeans who stole land, murdered the indigenous people, kept slaves, and then launched war after war around the world. What a load of crap. Who are we kidding?

Democracy is not a specific set of institutions but a process that requires dissent. Democracy is a process that assumes the majority of people, over time; given enough accurate information, and the ability to participate in a free and open public debate; reach constructive decisions that benefit the whole of society; and thus preserve liberty, protect our freedoms, extend equality, and defend democracy.

The end of our statement from the Blue Mountain Working Group issued in 1994 still resonates as a call to action:

The time has come to stand up and vigorously defend democracy and pluralism against the attacks orchestrated by cynical leaders of the anti-democratic right. History teaches us that there can be no freedom without liberty, no liberty without justice, and no justice without equality; and we look forward to success because we know it is through the never-ending struggle for equality, justice, liberty and freedom that democracy is nourished.


Chip Berlet, a freelance journalist and scholar, worked as an analyst and progressive movement strategist for over thirty years at Political Research Associates. He is currently a vice president of the Defending Dissent Foundation and working on a book on organized wealth and the attack on working people. A webpage with online links illustrating or expanding on this essay is at


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Jeff Madrick: The Reluctant Vote

By Benjamin Barber: Prudence or Principle? Why I will Vote for Obama and Why I Won’t Blame You This Year If You Don’t

By Stephen Eric Bronner: The Right, The Left, The Election: The Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and The Presidential Campaign of 2012

By Judith Stein: The Day After Election Day

By Rogers M. Smith: Progressivism, Polarization, and the 2012 Election

By Lauren Langman: Why Obama Will Win the Election . . . and the Left Should Hope So

By John Ehrenberg: How to Kill a Vampire

By Claire Snyder-Hall: The King of the 1% v. The American Republic

By Steve Early: Labor’s Quadrennial Condition: Between A Rock and A Hard Place

By Chip Berlet: Vote for Democrats—Then Organize to Kick Their Butts

By Richard Meagher: Founding Principles

By Alyson Cole: What’s Wrong with Victims?